The World Snooker Championship gets under way at the Crucible next Saturday with defending champion Mark Selby and six-time champion Ronnie O’Sullivan both scheduled to be in action on the opening day.
Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the talking points prior to this year’s tournament.
On the face of it, it looks very much like business as usual. Neil Robertson’s stellar season so far makes him favorite to claim a second world crown, while O’Sullivan is also in contention to match Stephen Hendry’s record of seven titles.
Four-time winner Selby and 2019 champion Judd Trump complete the top four seeds, but despite their continued dominance on tour, all arrive with asterisks over their ability to stay the course and lift the trophy on the final Monday.
Robertson is no fan of the venue of the format, Selby has been candid about his mental health issues this season, Trump has been off the boil in this campaign, and O’Sullivan’s application can never be entirely guaranteed.
Their vulnerability could play into the hands of the likes of fifth seed and former finalist Kyren Wilson – despite a far from impressive season himself – and 27-year-old Belgian Luca Brecel, who has looked a different player since reaching the UK final in December .
Is it China’s time?
Zhao Xintong’s stunning UK title win over Brecel was a sure sign of things to come on the world snooker tour, which now boasts two ‘triple crown’ winners among the nine Chinese players who currently inhabit the top 50 world ranking slots.
The quest to be crowned the first Chinese winner may be a little beyond Zhao this time around, as he embarks on what is only his second Crucible campaign, having lost in the first round of his only previous appearance in 2019 to Mark Selby.
But former Masters champion Yan Bingtao, this year’s 16th seed, has already proven himself adept at the long-form game and the 22-year-old possesses a genuine chance of making that historic breakthrough.
Where is the new British generation?
As forty-somethings continue to reign supreme at the top of the game, the highest-ranked British player under the age of 30 is the current world number 42 Sam Craigie.
While the Chinese talent continues to rise – Zhao and Yan are 25 and 22 respectively – the emergence of a home-grown successor to the likes of O’Sullivan and Selby seems far away.
Traditional format remains
The World Championship stands increasingly isolated in an era in which even best-of-19 matches are few and far between. Robertson has been among the most vocal in calling for the world semi-finals and final (currently best-of-33 and 35 respectively) to be slashed to best-of-25 at most.
But many more vocal elements insist the marathon sessions are precisely what makes the Crucible so special, and maintain it would do untold damage to the tournament’s tradition if it were to follow the example of the UK Championship and slash its frame-count.
The game’s governing bodies have shown no inclination to heed Robertson’s advice, meaning the Championship, in the format it has more or less maintained since 1982, is safely intact.